Breakdown in trust contaminates American public sphere

Breakdown in trust contaminates American public sphere
© Greg Nash

Civilizations hinge on having effective communication systems through which ideas and information can be credibly disseminated. Societies are fractured when subsections of people can’t understand each other or don’t trust each other, making collaborative functioning impossible. It is hopeless to debate foundational principles, let alone particular issues, when the flow of information and opinion is disrupted with spin, fabrication, fallacious reasoning and shallow bombast. But that’s what America is getting today from too many of the nation’s major sources of messaging.

Americans put little trust in the institutions that play the key roles in disseminating the information flow on which democracies and civil societies function. Credibility in establishment media is a wreck. It’s the same sad situation with government, big tech, and educational institutions. Too many of these institutions have strayed from a sense of serving a citizenry, and instead, have been caught snookering people for self-serving ends. Few today think big media exist to promote ideas and information in a way that enhances a culture. Few believe tech giants are consumer-focused avenues promoting civic discourse. Few think the education establishment is focused primarily on empowering students with knowledge and critical thinking as opposed to dogma and lucrative conformity. Then there are the politicians.

Many elements within these establishment communication sources have sparked — and profited from — polarization, failing to provide reasoned, accurate public deliberation that looks for common understandings. Strident messaging based on dividing people into subgroups poisons the culture to the point at which neighbors don’t trust each other to hold differing opinions.

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People must be able to connect with each other in respectful ways if they are to function in systems that build cohesiveness and functional interdependence. Broad bonds of unity, in this sense, are difficult to generate in a culture of distrust, separation and micro-identity, all orchestrated by mega-institutions that are oblivious to the responsibilities they should be shouldering.

No less an authority than Aristotle theorized the components of credibility over 2,000 years ago. He explained that credible communicators, individual or organizational, exhibit probity (honesty), sagacity (knowledge) and good will (concern for the audience’s interests). His thinking has been confirmed by rhetoricians and social scientists in subsequent generations. Many audiences today view established messengers as devoid of these traits — or question the traits themselves. 

Lack of trust leaves the arena of reasoned debate in chaos. The public sphere has thus degenerated into echo chambers, conspiracy rat holes, and ad hominem attacks. In short, the nation’s dialogue has become superficial, emotional, and largely factless. Even conscientious citizens who work hard to become informed and engage the public dialogue are exasperated, having to fight off cynicism and suspicion.

The rhetoric of reason has dissipated. Societies that can’t debate logically within a free flow of information and ideas are sure to disintegrate. After the nation emerged from the turbulent 1960s, prominent rhetorician, Marie Nichols, pointed to the irrationalism of that chaotic time and urged educators and civic leaders of the time to renew commitment to logic and reasoning in public rhetoric. She decried the “fuzzy” rhetoric in the public sphere that overwhelmed “carefully conceived ideas.”

Nichols’s concerns resonate today as rhetorical reason suffers on multiple fronts.

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Misguided leaders assert that police departments can be defunded without an accompanying surge in crime. Politicians demanded citizens follow “the science” in closing schools and the economy, ignoring other scientific perspectives regarding harm to mental health. American universities, supposed bastions of reason and free expression, now “cancel” people and ride sociocultural high horses. Mothers no longer exist, only “birthing people.”

President Biden told a crowd in Tulsa recently that white supremacy was the most “lethal threat” to the nation, then a few days later told American troops in England that global warming was the greatest threat to the nation. Not mentioned was the minor detail that a number of America’s geopolitical foes possess nuclear weapons.

Freedom of expression, religion and movement are now subject to the whims and self-righteous discretion of power-grabbing governors; 24-year-olds at social media giants decide which messages are allowed to circulate in the public sphere.

It is little wonder many rank and file Americans don’t trust establishment leadership, much of which has proven unworthy of leading free people.

The decline of reason leads to the nonsense of relativism, in which norms, laws, and societal structures are just baseless constructs that can be discarded like yesterday’s garbage. When a culture’s foundations are disrupted, confusion and havoc ensue.

Americans have demonstrated for generations the gumption to adapt and change with the times, and the establishment generally followed that lead. Today, sadly, too many institutions seek to bully Americans into different directions. It is time for the citizenry’s collective commitment to reason and common sense to lead the culture — and it would be wise for the establishment to listen.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.